A look into history’s pages gives the setting and origin of the Sunnyside Christian Reformed Church. To know the pioneers who settled here, one must become acquainted with the valley that was to be their home. This fertile valley lay across the Yakima River and down the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains. In the dry season, the soil became powdery dust which turned to muddy mire that was impassible when it rained. The land was covered with rich growths of sagebrush and bunch grass which made excellent grazing for cattle.
By 1894 water was being diverted from the Yakima River to feed the rich farm land. Beginning in the snow-fields of the Cascade Mountains, water flowed down forming the Yakima River. The river was in turn diverted through some 40 miles of man-made canals from which branched the laterals that watered the virgin farmland along its course. The Yakima Valley soon became known as the “Fruit Bowl of the Nation.” A railroad built in 1884 through Mabton, ten miles south, served the needs of the settlers. People had to ferry across the Yakima River to reach the train depot in Mabton. A bridge was built which in turn was washed away by high flood waters. New and more successful structures followed the building of the first bridge.
Searching the country for a suitable place to establish a Christian community, three men, all of Dunkard persuasion, founded Sunnyside. They were S. J. Harrison, who came in 1898, Christian Rowland and H. M. Lichty. The name chosen was, “The Christian Cooperative Colony of Sunnyside where there is no drinking, gambling or riotous living allowed.” But in purchasing the town of Sunnyside, they had to rescind their restrictive laws in order to gain clear title to the land. To attract settlers here the men promoted its favorable and healthful climate, availability of good land, and prime conditions for growing fruit. Early settlers were nearly all from the Midwest.
The year 1902 marked the incorporation of the Sunnyside Township. By 1905 the population had increased to about 600 which, for the most part, lived in unpainted temporary shelters on streets of mud and blowsand. Within the next ten years many lovely homes were built to house the hearty pioneers who came with a vision of better times to come. Lumber and building supplies were hauled by horse drawn wagons from the Mabton train depot. In 1912 C. Speck Motors opened its doors to sell and service cars to cater to the increased demands for motor vehicles. It continues in business today.
A number of Dutch farmers arrived in the Yakima Valley to till the land and provide a living for their families. To immigrate from the Netherlands in the 1890’s was no small matter. Family ties were broken and old ways uprooted. The voyage by boat from Europe to New York usually took two weeks. Finally the upraised arm of the Statue of Liberty greeted their arrival in New York. Then came the trying time of legal documents and immigration papers and medical examinations. A temporary apartment house on Ellis Island provided lodging for those making arrangements for their trek across the United States to Iowa, the Dakotas, Montana and Washington.
The Lord says, “Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already...you can see it now! I will make a road through the wilderness and give you streams of water there.” Isaiah 43:18,19.
As our Sunnyside CRC celebrated its 75th Anniversary on April 26, 2007, the Christian Reformed Church in America commemorated its 150th Anniversary on October 3, 2007. In 1857 the first CRC in the United States was established and held worship services on Ionia Street, Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a drab barn-like structure with one room being used for a Christian school. In 1868 an attractive church was built on Spring Street. This CRC was instrumental in establishing our seminary and provided and financially supported its first full time professor.
On April 26, 1932, the Sunnyside Christian Reformed Church was organized. Over these many years, God has blessed us along the way, kept us steadfast in the faith and brought us to our 75th Diamond Jubilee. As we tell its history, it is not about one person or group, but it is His great faithfulness to us that has guided every step of the way.
The story of the Sunnyside CRC had its beginning with the Zillah CRC which was organized in 1901 and built its church in 1906. It was known as the “Christian Reformed Church of the Sunnyside Valley.” From 1905 to 1932, the Sunnyside congregation constituted a branch of the Zillah Christian Reformed Church.
Six families who settled in Sunnyside and worshiped in their homes included the families of Chris Van Belle, Pieter Van Belle, Herman Boeringa, George Boeringa, Herman Terpstra, and the Itze Bos family.
Although officially affiliated with the Zillah CRC, these families found travel difficult over the miles of dirt and gravel roads. As they worshipped in their homes, Elder Pieter Van Belle served as Song Leader and read the sermons in Dutch. Trips to the Zillah CRC were made for communion and baptisms.
At intervals the Zillah CRC pastors came to give Biblical instruction to the small Sunnyside group. Those pastors were Rev. C Vriesman (1911-1916), Rev. John DeJong (1918-1924) who led the Sunday afternoon Worship Service in June, 1921, in which six people made Confession of Faith and had their twelve children baptized, Rev. J. W. Brink (1925-1930), and Rev. Nick DeVries (1930-1932).
In the spring of 1910, seven more families came directly from the Netherlands to begin farming in the Sunnyside area. During that time Pieter Van Belle made a trip to Holland and brought nineteen more people to Sunnyside on his return trip. These were Izaak and Ledewiy Den Boer and six children, Dick Visser, T. J. Schilperoort, Walter Ottevanger, Hank Kooy, John Newhouse and Maatje Besteman with her five children who came to join her husband already in Sunnyside. They came by boat, sailing ten days across the Atlantic Ocean and landing in New York. Then it was five more days on the train across the U. S. to Mabton, and finally by horse and wagon to Sunnyside.
As the congregation grew, the need arose to seek a central place to worship. A lot was purchased on the Cemetery Road and a one room church building was erected.
On April 26, 1932, Sunnyside organized as a separate church from the Zillah CRC. Serving as Classical Committee were Rev. J. Byleveld of Oak Harbor, WA, Rev. A. Guykema and Elder J. Roetsisoender of Sultan, WA. On this date the Sunnyside congregation consisted of 43 confessing members and 71 baptized members.
The Sunnyside congregation continued to grow and a new church edifice was needed. The Congregational Church had vacated their church a few years earlier on 8th Street and Franklin Avenue. It was a stately gray stone-block building with two flights of stairs to ascend before entering the sanctuary. It was purchased with the parsonage for $1,500 on October 2, 1936. The Cemetery Road Church was sold for $500 and exists as a residence yet today.
A tin collection box for the needy hung on the entry hall wall of the Stone Church. Its contents were once stolen, and later a community youth admitted the theft. The large white globed lights which hung on long chains fell prey to pillow-tossing catechumen youth chasing bats, as the lights swung against the balcony.
The Christian Burial Association of Sunnyside and Zillah was formed to give mutual help in defraying burial expenses based on Galatians 6:2, “Bear you one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The first beneficiary was John Witte on December 26, 1934. The Burial Association continues today.
The need arose to call a pastor to shepherd the growing congregation. In August, 1934, Candidate Andrew Bakker was appointed to serve as pulpit supply until a permanent pastor could be called.
In December 1937, Rev. Malefyt of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada was called. He accepted and arrived with his family in February, 1938. Receiving their first minister brought joy to the congregation. In his six years of ministry in Sunnyside, Rev. Malefyt aided in the transition from the Dutch language to English in the sermons and hymns. A series of bulletins were also printed and Daily Vacation Bible School was also begun. In the spring of 1944, he accepted a call to Artesia, California.
In the summer of 1944, a call was extended to Rev. William Terpsma and wife Daisy of Prinsburg, Minnesota. He began his ministry in Sunnyside in August of 1944. Rev. Terpsma helped establish the Sunnyside Christian School and served on the school board. This brought renewed hope to the hearts of church members who believed a Christian school would complement the Christian home and Church fellowship. After three years of ministry in Sunnyside, ill health brought Rev. Terpsma’s emeritation in October of l947.
Following World War II in 1945, a new influx of immigrants came from the Netherlands. The devastation Holland suffered under the Nazi occupation gave many people bleak prospects. Much of the once fertile lowlands were again under sea water, flooded after dikes were destroyed and the countryside stripped of its livestock and machinery by the Germans. Escaping these stark conditions, many Dutch families began arriving in America.
In April, 1948, Rev. Walter Hekman and wife Lucille of Doon, Iowa, arrived to accept the challenge of meeting the spiritual needs of the Sunnyside CRC. His teachings called for “a spiritual turning about, a dying to sin and a living to Christ. This includes bearing testimony of Christ to our neighbors, being good stewards of time and money and showing mercy and kindness.” During Rev. Hekman’s ministry a new Church Building Fund was begun in December 1950. Approval to change from a common communion cup to individual cups was granted in October, 1949.
Rev. Hekman also typed and printed a weekly bulletin to better inform the congregation of activities within the fellowship. In his concern for youth, Rev. Hekman began a correspondence exchange between the Young People’s group and our servicemen. Also, a choir was formed numbering thirty members and directed by Myrtle Arends. In 1948 a library began in the basement of the Stone Church. Rev. Hekman left in June, 1953, for St. Thomas, Ontario, after five years of ministry to the Sunnyside congregation.
In September 1953, Rev. John Griffioen and wife Gertrude arrived. With Rev. Griffioen’s patient guidance and counsel, the new church building program was completed with harmony and success. Rev. Griffioen taught with the depth of a learned scholar such Biblical truths as, “The Word of God is sweet. Look to its promises. But there is judgment. Life is a wilderness, yet Satan cannot reach the church which is secure in God. Following the wisdom of this world brings man to nothing.”
In 1963 the Sunnyside Congregation moved to the new 16th Street edifice built by various members of the Congregation well skilled in the art of construction. It was built to accommodate 600 worshippers. Rev. Griffioen chose the hymn, “I Love Thy Church, O Lord,” for the Cornerstone Dedication Service on August 29, 1962. Included in the cornerstone were a financial report and a bulletin. Rev. Griffioen’s retirement followed twelve years of ministry in Sunnyside.
In 1962, Jan Friend was ordained into the ministry under the auspices of the Sunnyside CRC with Rev. Griffioen officiating. Jan Friend served as United States Army Chaplain for the next 20 years.
Candidate Henry Wildeboer and wife Jan arrived in October, 1965, with their family. During his ministry, the emphasis shifted to active participation by the membership. “I Found It Campaign,” “Evangelism Thrust” and like efforts gave us many opportunities to knock on doors and man telephones in an effort to reach the unchurched of the community. Rev. Wildeboer taught, “Farming is geared to one purpose: the harvest. You are to become fishers of men, said Jesus.” Also, “giving as the Lord has blessed,” became a tool to witness to the needy locally and worldwide. Rev. Wildeboer left in 1970 for Calgary CRC in Canada.
Rev. Edward and Wilma Meyer and family, missionaries for twelve years in Argentina, arrived in March, 1971. His ministry included a vision to touch in a special way the shut-ins, spreading to everyone the joy of the Lord that radiated through him. He exhorted, “When Jesus is the object of our attention and devotion and service, life is never wasted. As such, it flows from a heart of love for a Savior Who gave His very life. Our God asks us to give 100% and that means a life completely dedicated and consecrated to God.” After five years, Rev. Meyer accepted a call to Holland, Michigan, leaving in January, 1976.
Rev. Laryn and Leta Zoerhof began ministering at the Sunnyside CRC in August, 1976. His quiet, unassuming manner and skillful oratory proclaimed the Word of God, reminding worshipers, “Jesus is the only real answer to the sin of man. The real issue in life is what you and I are doing with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His authority in our life. Share it, live in His power and know His blessings.” In 1980 with the ever growing congregation, Rev. Zoerhof began a new schedule of two morning worship services at 8:45 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., along with the 7:30 p.m. worship service. In June, 1979 Virgil Michael was obtained as a pastoral assistant. Rev. Zoerhof faithfully served our congregation until 1984 when he left for Highland, Indiana.
Virgil Michael, Jr., became Pastoral Assistant with his Installation Service being held on June 3, 1979. His duties were to assist in evangelism, music and youth ministries, and were coordinated with teaching of Band at Sunnyside Christian School. In February, 1982, Mr. Michael expressed his desire to pursue further training at Calvin Seminary with a view to the ordained ministry. Following seminary, Virgil Michael started a church plant in Tualatin, and continues as pastor there today.
Matthew and Connie Palsrok and son Joshua arrived, accepting the offer to serve as Pastoral Assistant during the 1982-1983 School year.
Rev. Harold and Marjean De Groot began their ministry at Sunnyside CRC in January, 1985. He taught, “Because of the resurrection, your labor is not in vain in the Lord. There is a lot of work ahead for each of us. We need the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job and the grace of God to sustain us. Suffer for Him on earth and we will reign with Him in heaven. Never give up. Let’s embrace these words from I Thess. 5:11, ‘Encourage each other and edify one another just as you are His.’ Hold fast to that first love you had when you first came to know the Lord. May we keep looking for the imminent return of Jesus Christ on the clouds of heaven. Until then, let us live and work for Him.” Pastor De Groot left for De Motte, Indiana, in 1988.
Rev. Stanley and Barb Drenth began their ministry at Sunnyside CRC in August, 1989. Pastor Stan exhorted, “Way back in the Garden of Eden, when we messed it all up, God comes and says, ‘Adam! Eve! Where did you go?’ The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come,’ and let him who hears say to others, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come. God doesn’t care about our bank account, our social status, our degrees behind our name. From the first page of Scripture where God says, ’‘Where are you Adam? Come!” to the last page in Revelation saying, “Take the free gift of the Water of Life,” God invites us to come to Him. So let us be faithful in telling others to come to the Word of God.” Following ten years of ministry at Sunnyside CRC, Pastor Stan left in July, 1999 for Searchlight Church plant in Jamestown, Michigan.
Marv and Doreen Anderson began their work at Sunnyside CRC in April, 1991 as Minister of Education and Outreach, assisting Pastor Drenth. His ministries included occasional preaching, senior bible study, involvement with the youth, Stephens ministry and outreach to the community. They left to serve in Hanford, California in January of 2000.
Rev. Jelmer and Diane Groenewold began their pastorate in the Sunnyside CRC in August, 2001. Jelmer guides us in the Word of God with, “God is far more wonderful than we can ever comprehend. We must live with our God in trust and confidence. Our God is full of mercy and loving-kindness. God provides mercy to all who come to Him. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.” Romans 8:35.
Rev. Lloyd Wicker and wife, Heidi, came to Sunnyside CRC in July, 2003 as Minister of Congregational Life. His duties include preaching and also ministry to the youth. Pastor Lloyd instructs us with, “We have to make time in our busy lives for the Lord. Take the first day of the week to worship together. Spend each day of the week in the Bible. Let it penetrate our hearts to become words we live with each day.” I John 4:4 “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.”
In the summer of 2019, Rev. Joel and Christine Sheeres moved from their church of 17 years in Crown Point, Indiana to accept the call of serving as lead pastor in lue of Rev. Jelmer's retirement.